How can parents discover what uni means?

You wait ages for a good survey on the state of student information, then two come along on the same day.

In celebration of the launch of the Unistats replacement Discover Uni, the Office for Students has commissioned a poll of the parents of children aged between 11 and 18 from YouGov. The headline is that parents need more support to help their children make good decisions – and the hope is that Discover Uni will go some way to addressing this need.

Less to discover

The unique selling point of Discover Uni over Unistats appears to be that it also offers more general advice on how HE works. But a lot of functionality – most notably the ability to directly compare courses, the ability to specify a foundation year in searches – is gone. There are missing data labels on graphs. The design of the advice requires you to click through to sub-pages of sub-pages – which then links off to pages on gov.uk (or, if you are lucky, a youtube video).

Office for Students is clear that this is a “beta” and they will be fixing it as they go based on user feedback. But I’m not even sure it was a minimal viable product at the point it was launched. It couldn’t even find a courses at, say, “Westminster” if you don’t type “University of” as well. Bugs are being fixed while the site is live – so hopefully this will soon be addressed. In the mean time Unistats will live on.

Sam Gyimah’s initial criticism of unistats was that it was like a “spreadsheet”. It wasn’t – it wasn’t as useful as that – but it was still a decent way of looking for a course. Discover Uni is also not a spreadsheet, but it can do a lot less than the service it replaces, and is arguably harder for prospective students and parents to use.

To give an example- Unistats used a free text subject search. If you typed in “maths and stats” it would figure out that you might be interested in statistics courses more generally and display you a sensible range of options. Discover Uni takes you down three levels of the Common Aggregation Hierarchy. For data nerds this is fun, but what will 18 year olds make of it? What will parents make of it?

Does your Dad know the loan repayment threshold?

Parents – like most people – don’t understand the fee and loan system. We can kind of take that as read. But, concerningly, there’s also a perception out there that students are unhappy with their courses (33 per cent of the sample thought the sector had a satisfaction rating of 56 per cent or lower).

The survey (conducted via the YouGov online panel) involved 1,038 parents of children aged 11-18, identified from a larger sample of 8,851 participants. Fieldwork took place towards the end of August – and results have been weighted (by sex, age, social grade, region, working status, marital status, number of children, and social media use) to be representative of the adult population of Great Britain.

The questions focus on the current knowledge of the participants – we are getting a taste of what the population understands about university study, not how they feel about it. There are no questions based on choice of subject or provider, which is odd as Discover Uni primarily exists as a course choice engine

It’s a valid approach, but one that seems designed to yield the result that people don’t know very much about the infrastructure of the higher education system – not that parents are ill-equipped to support their children in choosing where and what to study.

[Full screen]

And, sure enough – parents over-estimated borrowing and repayment levels (82%), underestimated or did not know the repayment threshold (44%), and underestimated student satisfaction (only 7% got this right). For each question the base is all UK parents of children aged 11-18, with the exception of the monthly repayment question which is asked of England and Wales parents only. You may wonder why all parents are asked about repayment thresholds given that there are different thresholds in different nations.

I’ve included the full suite of questions and splits just in case you ever need to know that LinkedIn users are more likely to know that a Foundation Degree is a HE qualification or that parents feel very informed about university costs in London and Scotland.

If we think data is the answer do we understand the question?

An issue that Unistats and Discover Uni shares is a reliance on institutional subject coding and grouping. In a nutshell, courses and students end up in different buckets for different purposes – students studying software engineering might end up in data labelled engineering or information and computer sciences, or computer sciences (or many others) in different datasets. Depending on the number of students on a course a student could be showing data on salary, destination, or entry qualifications, for completely different groups.

I’m not sure how you’d address this other than admit that the concept of “data” as a spur for choice is flawed. The experiences of past students are interesting to future ones in isolation, but not as helpful in aggregate – it’s the fallacy of division, but in reverse.

And – once more for those at the back – how does the information on this site reflect what is held on the OfS register? Wouldn’t prospective students like to know if their provider has conditions attached to their registration?

One response to “How can parents discover what uni means?

  1. “The experiences of past students are interesting to future ones in isolation, but not as helpful in aggregate.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this – knowing that students who graduate from one University *tend to be* more satisfied with their courses and *tend to be* earn 5k extra after a year obviously doesn’t offer any cast iron guarantees, but is still pretty useful.

    The data isn’t perfect, but perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.

Leave a Reply